Beginner’s Guide to Old School Death Metal
If you ask me, there’s never been a better time than now to get into death metal.
Finding new bands and listening to them has never been easier, with YouTube’s copyright laws getting less strict, making it the easiest, most accessible avenue for streaming music. The emergence of sites like Bandcamp, Spotify, and Soundcloud have shown that even record labels have been willing to play ball and let people listen to music without paying for it (you should totally pay for it if you like it, though).
Technical death metal has been trying to push the envelope for years, and sometimes it even produces interesting music! All the old classics are being reissued, all the old bands are coming back either to tour or release new material and a whole new wave of younger musicians are rising up to pay tribute to their forebears. Following hot on the heels of the the thrash revival, the so-called ‘New Wave of Old School Death Metal’ is in full swing and is putting out some great records. If you follow the metal blogosphere, you may be aware of this, but perhaps you’re a little in the dark about the inspiration behind it all. This post will serve to enlighten you, on the off chance that you’re not a regular at this here Toilet or you’re perhaps unfamiliar with OSDM.
In order to really understand death metal, especially the older stuff, I think it’s important to know where it came from. Death metal is pretty much the Darker and Edgier (and faster and heavier) evolution of thrash metal. It’s tuned lower, played faster, barely melodic and has more extreme vocals and lyrics. Death metal springs pretty much directly from Slayer and Possessed, so naturally they serve as a great lead-in to the genre’s early days. Kreator and Demolition Hammer don’t hurt either.
I’ll be introducing the bands by region, since many of them had a fairly distinct style or scene they were known for.
Florida is death metal’s Garden of Eden. The scene back in the day was known for its thrash-heavy sound, and is still remembered today for producing some of the most important and enduring names in death metal.
Death is – wait for it- the founder of death metal (though some make the argument that Possessed holds that title)! WHOO! Death’s 1987 debut Scream Bloody Gore took thrash to the logical conclusion and thus gave birth to death metal. Everyone else on this list exists because of this band, and its mastermind, the sadly departed Chuck Schuldiner (RIP).
Now, despite what you might imagine about a band named Death who released an album called Scream Bloody Gore, their music actually changed direction a couple times after their second album Leprosy. Starting with Spiritual Healing in 1990, Death started branching off into more technical and progressive directions, helping to lay the foundations for those future subgenres.
As you can probably imagine about an influential metal band that went through multiple phases, opinion is divided about which “era” is better (a recurring theme you’ll be seeing throughout this post). Some people prefer Death’s earlier, fiercer material, others think their journeys into technical death metal and progressive death metal are the high point of their career. For myself, having gotten into them long after the fact, and for you, doubtlessly not giving a shit, I’m going to say go ahead and listen to all of them. Scream Bloody Gore, Leprosy, Spiritual Healing, Human, Individual Thought Patterns, Symbolic, and The Sound of Perseverance are all worthwhile, interesting albums that deserve your time. Even if it’s only to decide for yourself.
The bottom line: If you’re new to the whole extreme metal thing, I’d say start with The Sound of Perseverance and work your way backwards. Otherwise, Leprosy.
(everyone knows “Hammer Smashed Face” already, stfu)
You knew these guys were coming. Cannibal Corpse is the most commercially successful death metal band out there, and therefore the easiest target for pretty much anyone. Concerned parent groups back in the day? Metalheads resenting their success? People who don’t know what death metal is? Even today, Cannibal Corpse get grumbled about for releasing albums consistently, making only minor alterations in the process. This means that they’re very often touring or recording new material, and the results pretty much always slay.
Recommending Cannibal Corpse albums is hard, because out of about 13 full length studio albums, fully 8 of them are absolute monsters that everyone should listen to at least once. Some fans think everything Cannibal Corpse recorded with their first singer, Chris Barnes, were untouchable classics and they went down the drain after they got George Fisher. These people are invariably old people wearing nostalgia goggles or kids who weren’t alive at the time and are too dumb to form their own opinions. Disregard them.
Their first two albums, Eaten Back to Life and Butchered at Birth (which has this really annoying chirping tone on all the chords), were the band’s first attempts at finding their footing as a band in the emergent genre. And while those albums aren’t bad, they’re of little interest to anyone who isn’t a fan. Tomb of the Mutilated and The Bleeding are the true classics of the Barnes era, where Cannibal Corpse found their sound and made a name for themselves. After The Bleeding, Chris Barnes left the band and George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher came aboard for Vile in 1996. While Vile is a personal favorite of mine, it isn’t essential, as the songwriting isn’t as consistent. What came next is far more important. Gallery of Suicide and Bloodthirst are a one-two punch of unadulterated death metal awesomeness, and the realization of all the hype Cannibal Corpse had built up in their career up to that point. Their next two albums afterwards, Gore Obsessed and The Wretched Spawn, are both solid pieces of work, if unessential. However, starting in 2006, their next four, Kill, Evisceration Plague, Torture, and A Skeletal Domain were a tour de force of songwriting, technical chops and unstoppable battering energy. Dig in.
The bottom line: Tomb of the Mutilated, if you don’t mind the production. If not, Bloodthirst.
Morbid Angel was one of the first bands to hit it big (relatively speaking) in death metal, combining awesome churning riffs and quick footed drumming and an unshakeably menacing vibe to create some of the best death metal out there.
Usually. Their first album, Altars of Madness, is one of the best death metal albums, and is definitely a must-hear for someone into extreme music. Their next three albums with their original singer David Vincent, Blessed Are the Sick, Covenant, and Domination are also all classics. Domination gets a bit of a bad rap for not being SUPER GROWL BLAST FURIOUS, but it has some of their most creative and memorable songs on it, so you don’t care about that. Vincent left Morbid Angel in 1996 and the band replaced him with Steve Tucker, and with a new singer/bassist in to they went on to record three albums. Formulas Fatal to the Flesh, their first album with Tucker, was good, not great, but well worth checking out. However their next, Gateways to Annihilation in 2000, is one of their best. Coincidentally, at the time of writing, it also Morbid Angel’s last good album. Heretic from 2002 is really lackluster, hampered by poor guitar tone and lackluster songwriting. It was Steve Tucker’s last album with the band, and really something of a sour note to go out on after a career best like Gateways to Annihilation.
But, in 2004, David Vincent rejoined the band, and seven years later the band (sans drummer Pete Sandoval) decided to shit out Illud Divinum Insanus. Everything you need to know about Illud Divinum Insanus can be summed up by this track. Normally I’d say the less said about this album, the better, but while I have this platform I’m going to take some time to educate the reader. This album is why we can’t have nice things. Illud Divinum Insanus is proof of a cruel, uncaring world. Kim Jong Un blasts Illud Divinum Insanus to oppress his country’s population. The CIA uses Illud Divinum Insanus to torture prisoners. Playing Illud Divinum Insanus in a war zone is considered a war crime by the Geneva convention. Metallica and Megadeth have cited Illud Divinum Insanus as inspiration for Lulu and Super Collider. Michael Bay listens to Illud Divinum Insanus while filming his Transformers movies. Playing Illud Divinum Insanus in ethnic neighborhoods is considered a hate crime. Playing Illud Divinum Insanus in front of a mirror at night causes the ghost of Chuck Schuldiner to appear and weep pitifully. Look, what I’m trying to say is, this album probably should have been named Alarming Inbound Donkey Scrotum, because that would have been both a more fitting acronym and honest assessment of the album.
The bottom line: Altars of Madness
Obituary were never quite as speed obsessed as their peers, preferring to focus more on mid-paced, crushing grooves and singer John Tardy’s distinct growl. While opinions are split on their later albums (including their most recent, last year’s Inked In Blood), Obituary’s first two albums, Slowly We Rot and Cause of Death are unflushable classics, the latter boasting some sweet guitar solos from shredder James Murphy. Go for those.
The bottom line: Cause of Death
Veil of Maya is also a deathcore band that doesn’t suck.
Cynic released a bunch of thrash demos in their early days, but you’re not going to worry about those, because what came after is what’s important. Band masterminds Sean Reinert (drums) and Paul Masvidal (vocals, guitar), after playing on Death’s Human, went on to record Focus in 1993, a weird but incredibly compelling blend of fusion, death metal, and prog that’s been influencing progressive-minded bands to this day. Safe to say, bands like Tesseract and The Contortionist owe Cynic a lot.
For whatever reason they changed their name to Portal (not that Portal) from 1994 to 1996 and released a demo under that moniker before breaking up. They came back in 2006 and released Traced In Air in 2008, which is about as great a follow-up to something like Focus as anyone could hope for. Their 2011 EP Carbon-Based Anatomy is also worth listening to. The band put out a new full-length last year called Kindly Bent To Free Us, which I have no strong feelings about one way or the other, but got favorable reception with a few blogs I respect, so I say go decide for yourself.
The bottom line: Focus
Atheist were one of technical death metal’s earliest pioneers, basically birthing the genre in 1989 with Piece of Time. They went on to add more progressive and jazz elements in Unquestionable Presence, which is commonly thought of as their best album. The prog and jazz elements were further augmented with even more ambitious arrangements on their third album, Elements, before they broke up a year later. They came back in 2006 and released their fourth album, Jupiter, which I thought was worthy enough to stand alongside their classic albums.
The bottom line: Unquestionable Presence
It should come as no surprise to anyone that a place as big and culturally important as New York is responsible for a quite a few influential musical acts across different genres. Death metal is certainly no exception.
Suffocation basically invented brutal death metal in 1991 when they released Effigy of the Forgotten. The crushing-but-intricate riffing, blunt, guttural vocals, slam riffs and relentless drumming pushed the boundaries of what was considered extreme at the time, and in doing so paved the way for countless others. Suffocation’s popularizing of the breakdown also led to the creation of slam death metal, probably the most primitive and stripped-down kind of music you’re likely to hear on the extreme end of things.
As far as what else to listen to, Breeding the Spawn from 1993 is a good album if you stomach the thin, grating production. Breeding’s follow up, Pierced From Within, though, is one of their best. The last release from their “classic era”, the Despise the Sun EP, is also worth listening to, even if it’s on the short side. After that the band broke up for a few years, but reformed in 2002 and put out Souls to Deny two years later, which also rips hard. Their next album after that, the self-titled Suffocation, isn’t quite as well loved, simply because it isn’t as fast and punishing as pretty much everything else they’ve put out. However, it’s a great entry point if you’re still new to the whole death metal thing, and it ended up having a bunch of killer songs on it anyway, so I say go for it. Blood Oath is their most unusual album by far, playing around with different tempos and more varied textures than your usual riffathon brutal death metal album. It’s their, dare I say it, experimental album, and one of their best. Afterwards, they went right back to the technical brutal stuff in 2013 with Pinnacle of Bedlam, which I thought was good but not great.
The bottom line: Effigy of the Forgotten
Incantation is the most evil death metal band out there, period. Pioneers of the cavernous, atmospheric, doom-soaked brand of death metal, Incantation, barring a couple lackluster efforts in the early 2000’s, have been pretty consistently putting out killer albums for more than 20 years. Their first two albums, Onward to Golgotha and Mortal Throne of Nazarene are all-time classics whose influence still rings to this day in the darker corners of black/death metal. In my opinion, Diabolical Conquest, while lacking the monstrous growls of Craig Pillard, gets overlooked often and deserves the respect given to Onward and Mortal Throne. There’s also Upon the Throne of Apocalypse, which is essentially just Mortal Throne with a rougher mix and the tracklist reordered. Not really necessary, but if you prefer it, it exists. Incantation’s 2000 to 2006 period saw the release of good-but-not-great albums, except for Primordial Domination, which I feel was somewhat lackluster.
After the Blasphemous Cremation EP in 2008, Incantation didn’t do much of importance until 2012 when they released Vanquish In Vengeance, and then followed that up with Dirges of Elysium in 2014. Both are career-best albums that reaffirm their legacy and status in an underground increasingly filled with bands taking influence directly from them. Do not miss.
The bottom line: Onward to Golgotha
Immolation is a great example of how to write technical, interesting music without being self-indulgent. Their first three records, particularly their 1991 debut Dawn of Possession, are regarded as classics. Later in their career, starting with Close to a World Below in 2000, they developed more of a signature style, utilizing more atonal and dissonant riffing, and bassist/singer Ross Dolan’s growl got huger. Close to a World Below is part of a three album stretch, including Unholy Cult in 2002 and Harnessing Ruin in 2005, that’s generally considered Immolation’s (un)holy trinity. After that, they released Shadows in the Light, Majesty and Decay, and an EP titled Providence, the latter two of which boast awesome production and some massive, crushing grooves. I wasn’t too hot on their most recent album, Kingdom of Conspiracy, as the mastering was really obnoxiously brickwalled and it didn’t have the memorable vocal hooks of Majesty and Decay. But the songwriting and riffcraft were excellent, so its hardly a whiff.
The bottom line: Dawn of Possession
Sweden had one of the more prominent scenes, and were known mainly for their chainsaw guitar tone and punk-inflected attack. The Swedes were also largely responsible for the emergence of melodic death metal.
Entombed is one of the single most influential metal bands to come out of Sweden, single-handedly pioneering the distinctive ‘chainsaw’ guitar tone (largely owing to the Boss HM-2 pedal and the production of Sunlight Studio) and riffing style that would go on influence so many of their countrymen and inspire admirers even to this day. Their 1990 debut Left Hand Path and its 1991 follow-up Clandestine pretty much set the tone (literally and figuratively) for a huge chunk of Sweden’s death metal scene.
But then a funny thing happened, and Entombed decided they’d rather play something else, and went on to more-or-less invent death ’n’ roll with Wolverine Blues in 1993. Death ‘n’ roll takes the same tone as death metal in terms of vocals and guitars but throws in a lot of rock riffs, resulting in something that’s crushingly heavy but really catchy. From Entombed’s ongoing death ‘n’ roll era, Wolverine Blues, Morning Star, Inferno, and Serpent Saints are all good albums.
I’d be remiss in talking about Entombed if I didn’t at least mention some of their ongoing legal problems. At some point a battle for control over the band’s name and rights erupted between the band’s members, and it ended with a bunch of them splitting off and forming another band, Entombed A.D., who then released Back to the Front in 2014. I don’t really know what the hell is going on with them to be honest, but Back to the Front is pretty good, so… Yeah. Whatever.
The bottom line: Left Hand Path
Dismember is among the first and most prominent bands to follow Entombed’s footsteps, bringing their more raucous, unhinged blend of death metal and d-beat hardcore. Their debut, Like An Ever Flowing Stream in 1991 is probably the third purest example of the style, after Entombed’s first two albums. I’d say their sound is one of the more accessible on this list, as the big chords and d-beat sections tend to stick out in the memory easier, and the vocals aren’t quite as oppressive as the deeper growls on this list.
The bottom line: Like An Ever Flowing Stream (most of these guys’ albums are good, but the debut is the freshest and more inspired)
Finland, despite being a small country full of alcoholics, put out what is inarguably some of the best, most memorable death metal of the 90’s. You only need to know about one right now, but there will be others in future installments.
Demilich only put out one album, Nespithe, but that’s okay, because Nespithe is absolutely unfuckwithable. It’s thirty-eight minutes of squamous, writhing riffs and low, almost burped vocals, and easily one of the most unique albums in metal. Nespithe is definitely a grower, though, so it may take a few listens for it to really click with you. The first time I listened to it, I was walking my dogs after over-eating, and the vocals kind of made me want to vomit. But on the second and third listen, things started falling into place, and I can safely say it’s becoming one of my favorite albums. And if you do get into it, you’re in luck, because it was remastered recently, and it kicks ass.
The bottom line: Nespithe
Britain, arguably the birthplace of heavy metal, also had some very important bands to contribute to the emerging genre of death metal.
In a historic sense, Napalm Death is better remembered as one of the early pioneers of grindcore with 1987’s Scum, and again in 1988 with From Enslavement to Obliteration (my favorite of the two). However, Napalm Death are on this list more for their evolution into more of a hybrid of death metal and grindcore, beginning with Harmony Corruption in 1990, which in my opinion is the best album they put out in the 90’s. They’re still going strong today, with their last two albums (Time Waits for No Slave and Utilitarian) being particularly good, and a ripper of a new album that just dropped at the end of January this year in the form of Apex Predator – Easy Meat.
The bottom line: Harmony Corruption
Carcass, like, Napalm Death, started out playing grindcore (guitarist Bill Steer actually played guitar on the second half of Napalm Death’s highly influential Scum) but then shifted gears afterwards fairly early on. Their first album, Reek of Putrefaction, is legendary for its absolutely godawful production and for single-handedly leading to the creation of the goregrind subgenre. They shifted gears right afterwards in 1989 to play something closer to actual death metal on Symphonies of Sickness, which is excellent, and where I’d recommend a newcomer start. Their next album, Necroticism – Descanting the Insalubrious in 1991, lacks the menacing appeal of Symphonies, but has a focus on precision and proficiency that nonetheless produced some great death metal tunes.
If you’ve heard of Carcass beforehand, you might know about Heartwork. Heartwork was a major turning point for the band, and along with At the Gates’ Slaughter of the Soul, made melodic death metal hugely popular in the 90’s, especially in Sweden, and led to the advent of metalcore in the early 00’s in the US. As such, there is to this day lingering resentment for Heartwork. The album after Heartwork, fittingly titled Swansong, as the band broke up later that year, moves even further away from their roots, going from melodic death metal to a more death’n’roll styled delivery. Swansong, as you may imagine, fares no better (if not worse) in the eyes of purists. However, I’m going to assume you don’t have a stick up your ass and suggest you go ahead and listen to both Heartwork and Swansong anyway. Carcass got back together in 2007 and then later released Surgical Steel in 2013. Surgical Steel kicks ass. Dig it. Or else.
The bottom line: Symphonies of Sickness
Warhammer 40,000 is nerdy as hell but it also looks really cool.
Bolt Thrower are known for their huge, churning, groovy sound and war themes. Bolt Thrower’s first album, In Battle There is No Law, like the above two bands, also dabbled in a somewhat grindcore-oriented sound, but they don’t become a must-listen until 1989’s Realm of Chaos, a true classic and hands-down the best album themed around Warhammer 40,000 out there. The followup, War Master, is decent, but is overshadowed by both it’s predecessor and it’s own successor, 1992’s The IVth Crusade. They hit the sweet spot again with …for Victory in 1994, but the next two albums, Mercenary and Honour – Valour – Pride are pretty boring, so skip those. Bolt Thrower’s last album to date was Those Once Loyal in 2005, and the band are still together, but have vowed not to release a new album until they feel they’ve written something that can top it.
The bottom line: Realm of Chaos
The Netherlands has quite a diverse selection of death metal for such a small country, but for this post, we’re concerned with one outfit in particular.
These guys, like Atheist, took a more progressive, fusion-oriented direction after their first couple albums, starting in 1991 with Testimony of the Ancients and continuing in 1993 with Spheres. But before that, they had the more thrash-heavy Malleus Maleficarum in 1988 and the absolutely unstoppable Consuming Impulse in 1989. If you have to pick one, go with Consuming Impulse, it’s easily one of the best death metal albums ever written, never mind subgenre or time period. Malleus, Testimony, and Spheres are also great, but they don’t quite reach the dizzying heights of precision and fierce energy Consuming Impulse does. Not to mention, vocalist Martin Van Drunen left the band in 1990, robbing them of his very distinctive vocal presence.
Pestilence broke up in 1994, but got back together in 2008 and have released three albums since then. Opinion is generally split on the quality of these albums, but I think 2009’s Resurrection Macabre is a safe bet for any interested parties.
The bottom line: Consuming Impulse
Well, neophyte, that concludes your crash course on old school death metal. Hungry for more? Feel like I snubbed your favorite album/artist by not including them on this list? Well, rest easy, because I plan to write at least two more posts for this series.